Hollyoaks star reflects on Maxine's powerful storylines

Welcome to Screen Sisters, a collection of conversations about what it means to be a woman working in television both in front of and behind the camera.

As well as recognising women's contribution to the industry, the series will also examine the highs and lows of working in media, how far television has progressed, and how much further it still has to go.

To celebrate International Women's Day, we spoke to Hollyoaks star Nikki Sanderson about her experience playing Maxine Minniver, and the woman who inspired her.

Note: This article contains discussion of themes including domestic abuse and sexual misconduct.

She's been in Hollyoaks for over a decade, but Nikki has actually been navigating the Soapworld since she was 14. Nikki joined Coronation Street as Candice Stowe back in 1999, playing her for six years until 2005.

After leaving Corrie, Nikki landed a long-running role in police drama Heartbeat, and made a number of singing television appearances (ITV's Madonna Mania, Celebrity Stars in Their Eyes and The X Factor: Battle of the Stars, where she was eliminated fifth). She then landed the Hollyoaks part of sweet-natured Maxine in 2023, and she's stayed there ever since.

In 2013, Hollyoaks explored the issue of domestic violence through Maxine and her then-partner Patrick. As the story progressed, Maxine and Patrick both appeared in a series of government 'This is Abuse' adverts, highlighting the issues of domestic violence.

Reflecting on the story and how it has shaped Maxine as a character, Nikki said: "She has been through some incredibly difficult, traumatic, hurtful, painful, frightening situations. For instance, when she was in the domestic-abuse relationship, and everything that she's faced throughout the years.

"Even in her most difficult, darkest times, she's faced it head on and she's come out of it stronger — not only wanting to be stronger for herself, but stronger for her daughter and the people around her. That is why I think she is a strong character, due to the fact that everything that she's been through, she faces it head on and makes a better, stronger, brighter future for herself afterwards.

"I think throughout the years, Maxine has shown many times that she is extremely strong in many different circumstances. But I think that a couple of the most powerful ones that we've seen so far [are] definitely when she exposed Patrick as the abusive partner that he was on their wedding day and finally getting the strength to be able to admit to everybody what she was going through, what she had been through and finally trying to find a way out of that relationship by exposing him.

"It took extreme strength to be able to do that. To be able to expose an abuser is extremely difficult to do and extremely traumatic to do — and the fact that she did it knowing that she was going to be having a child because she was pregnant at the wedding. Maxine wanted to be able to show strength, not just for herself, but also for her child coming into the world and to give the child a safe, loving, caring environment."

maxine is upset by sienna's public attack
Lime Pictures

Last autumn, Maxine took centre stage during another hard-hitting storyline when she was assaulted after a night out.

The groundbreaking episode, titled 'The Long Walk Home', followed Maxine as she became separated from a group of friends while clubbing in town. The scenes were produced and directed by a team of women and highlighted several scenarios women can face on a night out.

"It was an incredibly important subject to cover," Nikki explained. "It is very relevant and it is happening day to day. We hear about it day to day, unfortunately. It's something that I feel Hollyoaks delivered powerfully, but also very sensitively.

"I think it was important to do it and important to show it and show all the different areas to that subject. For example, how it's not always just about a physical side of an abuse or attack. [Hollyoaks] showed how it can begin with things like cat-calling and the effect that has. Also, the impact an attack has — not only on the person that it happens to, but the people around them.

"I think Hollyoaks did a fantastic job in portraying that. You do see it happening all the time and hear about it in the media, and it's just incredibly sad. But if we can come together, we can try to make a difference."

embargo 01112022 maxine minniver in hollyoaks
Lime Pictures

At the time, Hollyoaks writer Jayshree Patel, who wrote the episode, insisted that one of the messages behind the powerful scenes was to spotlight how men also have a responsibility to make sure women feel safe in public spaces.

Jayshree said at the time that the idea behind the episode initially came from her sister's reaction to her walking her dog at nighttime, as well as watching her daughters grow up.

She also explained the reasoning behind having Maxine's attacker caught and arrested at the end of the scenes. While, in reality, this is seldom the outcome (Rape Crisis report that only 1 in 100 reported attacks actually result in a charge), Nikki believes it was a huge turning point in her character's journey.

"Maxine found the strength to go to the police to report what had happened," she explained. "By doing so, the culprit of the attack was brought into custody, was arrested and charged, preventing him from ever being able to hurt or attack another woman in the future.

"It took great strength for Maxine to do that. She showed her strength and resilience by trying to help, like I've said, not just herself but her daughter, and also all the people around her. "

maxine minniver in hollyoaks
Lime Pictures

As the storytelling landscape continues to shift both in soaps and TV as a whole, Nikki is also hopeful that Hollyoaks can keep leading the way with impactful episodes like this.

"There's obviously lots of other issue-based storylines that we can approach and Hollyoaks do approach", she said.

"They are incredibly good at doing issue-led storylines, and I love for Maxine to be a part of them – absolutely. I feel very lucky that I've been included in so many wonderful storylines throughout the years, and yes, I would obviously hope for myself and my character that I get to do many more and see other characters do.

"We have some very super talented people within our cast that I do feel would be amazing at storylines, and I've heard some rumors of storylines coming up and the characters that are playing them I think will be absolutely fantastic. "

Despite all that Maxine has been through, Nikki also has a neutral take on fan reactions to her alter-ego. Back in 2019, Hollyoaks explored through Maxine the issue of Munchausen's syndrome, defined as "a psychological disorder where someone pretends to be ill or deliberately produces symptoms of illness in themselves" (via NHS).

maxine minniver and damon kinsella in hollyoaks
Lime Pictures

Before Maxine received a proper diagnosis, she made a number of shocking moves that left viewers enraged. But when reflecting on Maxine's history on the show, Nikki insists that any backlash has been deserved and is generally evenly spread across all soap characters when the story calls for it.

"They can be her biggest supporters, but also they can be her biggest critics as well," she said. "I think throughout the years, Maxine has done things and been in situations where viewers can really get behind her and support her, but there have also been times where they can't understand her at all, and they do judge her.

"I don't necessarily think they judge her more than a male character, though. I just feel that most characters within the show get judged both ways throughout the years due to sometimes storylines being agreeable and sometimes the audience being like: 'I can't believe they've done that'.

"I don't think that she has ever been judged any more harshly [for being female]. I actually think the viewers judge her quite fairly. "

maxine minniver in hollyoaks
Lime Pictures

Moving away from the land of Hollyoaks, what inspired Nikki to want to be an actor in the first place?

"I always wanted to be an actor," she said. "Even as a very tiny child, I wanted to be an actor, and that's all I've ever wanted to do.

"But going through high school, I've actually still got the two sheets from my careers advisor, where you say what you want to do and they give you your sheets, which has got all the information about the chosen career, and they tried to guide you on what you should and shouldn't maybe do or go forward doing.

"My options were, I wanted to be an actress — that's all I wanted to do. But they said I would have to have a Plan B, so my [second] option was something in the field of forensics. This is before these shows that are now on, like CSI and everything. This is a hundred years ago in the late eighties, early nineties. But I was really into chemistry, biology, and maths, and I wanted to do something in that field. I wanted to do either acting or forensic science, or maybe be a forensic pathologist or crime-scene investigator. I just wanted to do something in forensics.

"So my two sheets, and I've still got them somewhere, I must go find them. But in one, I was given information about performing arts, and the other was a sheet on forensic science.

"I feel that I have been incredibly blessed in my career. I started as a child, I started very, very young in this industry, and I feel that I have been extremely looked after and helped and guided along the way. There's obviously been times throughout my career where I haven't been working because there's not been jobs or I've been for auditions and I've not got them.

"It's been a bit up and down for me, but, as a whole experience, I'd say it's been extremely positive, and I'm very, very grateful for the fact that I've been able to do this career for as long as I have, and long may it continue. I would say it's very, very positive, and that's due to a lot of wonderful people around me supporting me, being there for me, guiding me and helping me."

maxine minniver in hollyoaks
Lime Pictures

As for which female mentor influenced has Nikki's work and career, there was only one answer.

"My mum," she said gleefully. "She has been the best person ever to be in my life. She's the best person ever to be in my life, but as a mentor, she was just incredible because she was so supportive.

"She was incredibly helpful with anything that I ever needed. She was someone that I massively looked up to. She was someone that I was hugely inspired by, and she was always there to have a guiding hand to help me.

"Throughout the years, she'd just been everything you could ever want in not only a mum, but a mentor and someone who I am grateful for every single day that I have her in my corner, supporting me, pushing me forward, helping me and telling me what I need to hear. And not even just what I need to hear, but what I need to hear, and when I needed to hear it. She's my biggest support system. She is the best, I love her."

nikki sanderson as maxine minniver in hollyoaks
Lime Pictures

And finally, what are the biggest lessons she's learned in her career so far?

"To always be kind, respectful and polite to everybody around you and who you are working with," Nikki explained.

"And not just who you are working with either, but just in life. Just to be kind, respectful and polite to everybody and know that within your work environment, every single person that is there to create the same work as you.

"You can have certain instances where people will say the cast of this or this is that, but I think we all come together as a team. You work as a team, we are all creating the same show and everyone should be respected.

"You should always treat people as you would expect to be treated because it's always lovely to be able to keep a good reputation. I don't feel that anyone should be considered below or above anyone else, and I don't believe that anyone should be disrespected.

"Definitely in my life and my career I've learned that it is always important to be respectful, kind, considerate and polite to everybody around you — and that should just be life 101."

Hollyoaks streams first on All 4, with new episodes dropping each weekday morning. The show airs Mondays to Fridays at 6.30pm on Channel 4, and at 7pm on E4.

Selected omnibus episodes are available via Prime Video.

Read more Hollyoaks spoilers on our dedicated homepage

If you've been affected by the issues raised in this story, you can access more information from Rape Crisis England and Wales, who work towards the elimination of all forms of sexual violence and sexual misconduct, on their website or by calling the National Rape Crisis Helpline on 0808 802 9999. Rape Crisis Scotland's helpline number is 08088 01 03 02.

Readers in the US are encouraged to contact RAINN, or the National Sexual Assault Hotline on 800-656-4673.

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